A Conversation With Richard Demato

A Conversation With Richard Demato


The President of The Retreat talks about the effect of the recession on domestic violence, what the not-for-profit has done to stay afloat amid declining governmental assistance and why he thinks local organizations should start working together.

The East End Social Service Summit has been billed as a gathering of local not-for-profits with the ultimate goal of groups developing symbiotic relationships. Where did this idea come from and what do you truly hope this evening will accomplish?

It is a concept that just fell into my head. I felt [The Retreat] had a difficult time and we worked hard to come up with some unique concepts to take care of our agency. I feel, and [The Retreat’s Executive Director] Jeff Friedman agrees, that we have our unique ideas and other organizations have their ideas and if we share them successfully we could all benefit. Although we go to the government for funding, we cannot depend on the towns and the villages to assist us. We do need their money, but East Hampton Town cut us out entirely and if we didn’t do something creative the agency could have really been hurt. Instead, we are doing seven television shows through LTV, which is something I would suggest to other groups including the new Southampton Animal Shelter. It is free, it reaches the East Hampton market and they will give you a copy of the show, which you can submit to other not-for-profit television stations.  As you raise awareness about your organization, as The Retreat has been able to do through the newspaper, you get more and more support. It is critical to clarify the purpose of your not-for-profit and bring awareness to the community and the return is you will find a group that is interested in your organization. And it’s not just financial interest. I have five or six friends that now volunteer for The Retreat. I want to hear what other groups have done and if each of us can pick up one idea, we win. This is only the tip of the iceberg for us. The Retreat is looking to start a program for men and boys. Right now, we can’t shelter men because our shelter is a woman-protected shelter, but we do get calls and we want to be able to address that need as well. That program would be comprehensive – outreach, prevention, education and counseling. We are also trying to take advantage of the housing market to look into creating transitional housing. The point is we are trying to do different things, but someone else might have another good idea. Creativity brings more creativity.

National statistics show that during times of economic crisis, domestic violence rises. Has The Retreat seen this statistic become a reality in the last two years?

We were at full capacity at the end of last year with a waiting list. We had to refer people to other organizations. The unfortunate fact is this puts pressure on individuals prone to violence and the police back us up on this point. There is a direct link to crime, to drinking and drug abuse during a recession. We have started small groups called SOS on Shelter Island because there was a need and I was there when [Shelter Island Police Chief James Read] spoke. He made it clear, the relation between loss of income, people being laid off, the increase of drinking and drug use and how that can result in violence. It is a tough time for a lot of people. I don’t think a lot of people understand how bad it is, particularly in the construction industry. On a positive note, a lot of people, including financial analysts are sating we are starting to come out of the downturn. The real estate market is getting busy again, the inventory of houses is declining.

After a tenuous financial hold in 2008, it appears The Retreat will be closing its books in 2010 in the black. What do you attribute this to?

Several things. I was fairly aggressive with the board of The Retreat and we came to the unanimous decision to assist the agency. We doubled [our contribution] as a group and that helped. One member bought us a new computer system. Another woman paid for a new person to work at the shelter and all that stuff comes out of the annual budget. It was good stuff. All the radio ads, the art gallery contests, the road rally, the wine tasting we did, each one widens our listening base and elevates the opportunities for us to get more assistance, whether its volunteerism or financial.

The Retreat is the only organization on the East End devoted to preventing domestic violence and helping its victims. How is the organization able to cover such a large area of need?

The staff is extremely focused as is our executive director and they all work 24-7, responding to e-mails and calls even on the weekends. We also opened a larger satellite office near the courthouse in Riverhead this year, which accomplished several things for us. When people hear we are from East Hampton, they assume we don’t need money. Roverhead offers a different economic perspective for people. I was talking to the head of a charity in Westhampton Beach that helps animals and they experienced the same problem because people could not understand that they help all the way out here. We also hired more people because the executive director and the staff wrote strong grant proposals that enabled us to have the funding to bring more people on board and we still finished in the black because people have donated their time to us. If we have three volunteers working, perhaps a staff member can focus on another area of need. No one does just one thing – our staff is versatile, taking on several different roles. I think it is that way at a lot of not-for-profits because you are not just working for the paycheck. There are emotional bonds and most of them appreciate the work they do. At a board meeting the other day, Jeff [Friedman] played a phone message – without revealing the woman’s name – from someone we gave a car to. We have been doing that more as we have gotten car donations as a result of the car rally and it just changes someone’s life. It gives them independence. A lot of people don’t understand why women don’t leave these bad situations and generally it is because they have no money, no car, nowhere to go. Just this can give someone the opportunity to go get work and have independence. It just can mean everything.

Is it your hope that other not-for-profits will be able to take similar techniques after Friday’s meeting in order to further their own work?

The whole idea is for us to be extremely transparent with all the non profits about what we have done, because if we are not I do not believe they will be comfortable sharing their own insights with us. The intention is to be completely honest and that I believe honesty is contagious. For example, we will tell them about the different grant opportunities we are looking at, how we were able to motivate our own board to help the agency more than they already had and I will explain how I plan to make it even better next year; although I will keep that to myself until Friday. But I do have some interesting ideas.

Outside of sharing ideas, do you see an opportunity for not-for-profits to connect over common goals during Friday’s summit?

Absolutely. That is exactly what I am hoping for. The reality is none of us can stand alone today. You simply cannot depend on outside financial resources – you have to find creative ways to involve the community in the work you do. I look at what is going on in Haiti and the success with texting donations. After seeing the impact that has had, I approached The Retreat and suggested we set up a similar system so people can use their phones to donate $10, $20 to our cause. You have to learn from everything around you, and on Friday, if we can pick up a couple ideas from one another, it will be a success.

Outside of not-for-profits, do you expect other guests to attend Friday’s meeting?

I believe Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman will be there as well as New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr.

Is it your hope having government leaders there will help them to understand the level of need for local organizations on the East End?

I think being familiar and comfortable with one another and having them be aware of what we are doing will help ultimately with funding. We have to create ways for people to be involved with our organizations and for The Retreat, having Jay or Fred there goes a long way towards showing that men care about our cause as well as women and that is a major, major thing for us.

The Retreat has been a huge part of your life for a number of years now. What drew you to the organization in such a dedicated way?

Several things. First of all, I tend to get involved with anything I am committed to -– it’s the same at my gallery [ The Richard J. Demato Gallery on Main Street in Sag Harbor]. I also have five younger sisters, two of which have lived the life of women we have helped at The Retreat. A neighbor sold me some raffle tickets one day and I went to the event. I saw I could make a difference. At the time they did not have anyone with a business background and with my knowledge of marketing and business it just was a perfect marriage. The Retreat has given me something to be proud of. This is a very special group of people. They are all little diamonds.

The East End Social Service Summit will be held at the Richard J. Demato Gallery, 90 Main Street, Sag Harbor, from 5:30 to 7:30 on Friday, January 22. Registration is required and seating is very limited. To register call 329-4398 or e-mail Kathy@theretreatinc.org.

Originally published by The Sag Harbor Express.


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